Ages: Hermann – 50
Matilde – 41
Irene – 14
Walter – 10
Werner – 8
Residence: Mexico City, Mexico
Mr. Doehner's Occupation: General Manager of Beick, Felix y Compania
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, portside dining room
Hermann – died in wreck
Matilde – survived
Irene – died in hospital
Walter – survived
Werner – survived
Hermann Doehner was general manager of Beick, Felix y Compania, a prominent German wholesale drug company headquartered in Mexico City, Mexico. Born in Erfurt, Prussia, on September 22, 1887, Doehner emigrated to Mexico in 1908 or 1909 when he was approximately 21 years old. He eventually became a naturalized Mexican citizen.
In December of 1936, Hermann Doehner traveled to Germany to reorganize a Beick, Felix y Compania affiliate in Hamburg, bringing with him his wife Matilde (born Matilde Schiele in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 20, 1895), their 14 year-old daughter Irene, and two of their sons – Walter, age 10, and Werner, age 8. 17 year-old Hermann Jr. stayed behind in Mexico City, and their eldest son, Kurt, 21, was already in Germany working toward his doctorate in chemistry at Darmstadt Technical University.
Mr. Doehner had flown to Europe from South America via Akron, OH on the Graf Zeppelin four years earlier in 1933, on the Graf Zeppelin's so-called "Triangle Flight". Now, he thought that it would be a treat for his family to travel by airship on their homeward journey, and bought tickets for his family to fly to the United States on the Hindenburg.
Mrs. Doehner, however, was apprehensive about the flight and did not particularly want the family to travel by air. But Mr. Doehner insisted that it was the best, most comfortable way to cross the Atlantic, and that it would get them home a full two days faster than the normal steamship route would. So it was that the five Doehners boarded the Hindenburg on the evening of May 3rd, 1937 for the airship's first North American flight of the 1937 season. Hermann and Matilde had wanted Kurt to join them for the flight, but he was too busy with his studies and couldn't take the time off from school to make the trip.
The Doehners got a chance to take a closer look at the airship before they boarded, and Werner would later recall being amazed by the immense size of everything, particularly the large tires under the control car and the lower tail fin, as well as the massive propellers mounted at the rear of the four engine gondolas.
When the passengers were brought aboard the Hindenburg, the Doehners were shown to their room. Unlike most of the cabins assigned to the various passengers, double-occupancy cabins upstairs on A-deck, the Doehners' cabin was one of the new ones down on B-deck aft of the smoking room. Added during the previous winter, it was a family-sized room with four bunks (the only such cabin on the ship) and a small row of windows built into the floor at the far end of the room.
Oddly enough, two of the Doehners' fellow passengers on this flight had direct familial connections to passengers who had flown with Mr. Doehner back to Germany on the Graf Zeppelin in 1933. Marie Kleemann of Hamburg was the mother of Mrs. John Bolten, who had flown with her husband on the final leg of the Graf Zeppelin's 1933 "Triangle Flight". Now, Mrs. Kleemann was flying to the United States to help her daughter recuperate after an operation, and her son-in-law, John Bolten, would be meeting her at Lakehurst. Otto Reichhold of Vienna was making the trip in order to meet with his brother, Henry Reichhold, about their family business. Henry Reichhold had also made the 1933 Graf Zeppelin flight with Mr. Doehner, and like John Bolton he would be at Lakehurst to meet his brother. And as if that weren't enough, one of the passengers booked for the Hindenburg's return flight, George Willens of Detroit, had also been a passenger on the same 1933 Graf Zeppelin flight as Mr. Doehner, the Boltens, and Henry Reichhold.
The Doehner family's Hindenburg flight was to be, however, rather uneventful, without much to see outside the passenger decks' long rows of observation windows for most of the voyage besides the grey clouds through which the Hindenburg was flying. Mr. Doehner passed some of the time filming his family and the interior of the ship, using the home movie camera he'd brought. Mrs. Doehner spent much of her time during the flight sitting in the lounge knitting while Walter and Werner played nearby. One of the playthings they'd brought along was a little toy tank, given to Werner by his great-aunt before they left Germany. However, it made sparks when the boys ran it across the carpeted floor of the lounge, and Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis had to confiscate it for the remainder of the flight, explaining to the boys that the sparks could be very dangerous on a hydrogen-filled airship.
Werner, Walter, and Irene Doehner pose for their father's movie camera during the Hindenburg's last flight.
At about 2:00 PM on the last day of the trip, May 6th, the children watched excitedly as they flew over New York, which was bustling with mid-afternoon activity. They were particularly thrilled by the massive Empire State Building, and also by the fact that the ships in the harbor below all began blowing their steam whistles as the Hindenburg flew overhead. They were too high up to hear the sound of the whistles, as Werner would later recall, but they could easily see the steam blowing up into the air.
Nearby, their parents were also enjoying the broad aerial view of New York. Mr. Doehner turned to his wife and asked, “Now aren’t you glad we took the Hindenburg and saved two days? We might still be at sea.”
Mrs. Doehner, still very uneasy about flying, replied, “I’ll be glad when we’re on the ground.”
She would still have to wait awhile yet. The Hindenburg was already running almost half a day behind schedule due to excessive head winds, and the original 6:00 AM landing at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ was now scheduled for 6:00 PM, more than three hours away.
The ship flew over the airfield at 4:00 that afternoon, but the ground crew would not be assembled and ready to moor the Hindenburg for at least another two hours. Of the 240-man landing crew, 138 of them were local civilian workers from the Lakehurst area, hired by the Zeppelin Company. Most of them would not be free to report to the airfield until their regular work days ended, and the air station’s steam whistle would not summon them until 5:00 PM.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Doehner and her anxiousness for her family to be safely landed and off the ship, heavy thunderstorms approaching Lakehurst from the west would further delay the landing. 6:00 came and went, with the Hindenburg cruising along the Jersey shore waiting for the bad weather at the airfield to clear.
Finally, at about 7:00, the Hindenburg returned to Lakehurst. The thunderstorms had passed, and the ship had been cleared to land. The Doehners gathered with other passengers in the portside dining room to watch the landing maneuver through the big observation windows. As the ship approached the mooring mast and dropped its landing ropes, Mr. Doehner went downstairs to their cabin on B-deck to get another roll of film for his movie camera. Mrs. Doehner and the three children were sitting at a table near the aft-most windows. Steward Severin Klein stood nearby, answering the boys' questions as they watched the landing crew connecting the ship's landing lines to the mooring tackle on the ground below.
Mrs. Doehner would later recall that as the ship drew closer to the mooring area and the moment approached when she could stand once again with her family on solid ground, the fear that she had suppressed throughout the voyage began to return.
Suddenly the Hindenburg shook and the floor begain to tilt aft as the ship began to fall to the ground . The Doehners and Klein were thrown to the rear wall of the dining room, along with quite a few of the other passengers standing ahead of them. As the ship began to settle to the earth and the floor began to level back out, Mrs. Doehner saw Klein and another steward, Fritz Deeg, drop through the window they'd just been looking through moments before. Her husband was nowhere to be found, still somewhere on the other side of the passenger deck. She gathered her children together as a few more people nearby leaped to the ground ahead of them, then she made her way to the window as the fire began burning its way into the dining room.
The ship's hull was now on the ground, but had landed in such a way that the portside observation windows were still about 15-20 feet in the air. Mrs. Doehner saw Deeg standing on the ground below, calling to them. She picked up Walter and dropped him out of the window. As Deeg caught him and tossed him clear of the wreckage, she tried to drop Werner through the same window, but he bounced off of the window frame and she had to grab him a second time and try again. The boy's hair and face were burning by the time she got him out the window, but Deeg caught him, patted out the fire, and quickly carried him to safety.
Mrs. Doehner then turned to Irene, who was screaming for her father and refusing to jump. She tried to pick Irene up and toss her through the window, as she'd done with the boys, but Irene was too heavy for her to lift. The girl ran toward the central cabin area where she'd last seen her father, and Mrs. Doehner had no choice but to follow her sons out the window. She tried to keep her feet underneath her, but she landed badly and injured her pelvis. Severin Klein had just run back to the ship as Mrs. Doehner landed, and he helped Chief Steward Kubis to carry her away from the wreck as she called out for her daughter.
At about this time, rescuers began entering the wreckage of the passenger decks to lead the remaining passengers to safety. Emil Hoff, a tanker truck driver for Veedol/Esso who was onhand to help to land and refuel the ship, had just returned to the wreck after leading Chief Electrician Philipp Lenz to safety from the ruins of the ship's electrical center. Hoff entered the wreckage through a broken window downstairs on B-deck, and climbed up the gangway stairs to the dining room.
There, he found Irene Doehner sitting in a daze at one of the tables. She was badly burned and in shock, and Hoff evidently decided that lowering her down the gangway stairs and out through the bottom of the ship (as was being done with other passenger survivors) would take too long and might risk injuring her further. So he led her to one of the dining room windows and tried to get her to jump. The window was still about 15 feet above the ground, and rescuers were still on the ground below.
One of these rescuers, steward Eugen Nunnenmacher, had just made his way back to the wreckage and looked up to see Irene standing in the window, her hair and clothes afire, hesitating as Emil Hoff tried to get her to jump. Nunnenmacher called to her from down below, and she finally leapt from the window. Nunnenmacher tried to catch her. She landed in his arms and the two of them tumbled to the ground. Nunnenmacher frantically tried to extinguish the fire on her back and in her hair, burning his own hands in the process. Captain Heinrich Bauer, who had escaped from the control car, came running up to help, and the two men put out the fire and dragged Irene away from the wreck.
One of the Hindenburg’s female passengers, most likely Matilde Doehner, is carried away from the scene on a stretcher.Meanwhile, Mrs. Doehner and her two sons were taken to one of the limousines that had been onhand to shuttle the passengers to the hangar. She was asking about her husband and daughter, but Hermann had never made it out of the wreck, and Irene was burned so badly that Kubis and the others didn't want her mother to see her.
Matilde Doehner, her two sons, Walter and Werner, and her daughter Irene were taken to Point Pleasant Hospital that night. Irene was still alive when they brought her in, but was burned badly enough that one of the attending nurses actually fainted at the sight of her injuries. Irene Doehner died during the night.
Hermann Doehner was still listed in the newspapers as “missing” the following morning. His body was recovered that day, and he was later identified by his wedding ring.
Mrs. Doehner's pelvis was broken in three places, and she had suffered a number of burns while trying to save her children. Walter sustained minor injuries, but was mainly in shock. Werner was more badly injured, his face and head having burned while his mother was trying to get him through the window. His eyes were swollen shut, and his mother was afraid that perhaps he'd lost his sight (or even his eyes) until the swelling went down four days later. The boy's eyes were fine, but between his burns and Mrs. Doehner's injuries, the three of them would have to stay in hospital for some time.
Gustav Schiele, Mrs. Doehner's brother, flew in from Chicago immediately after he heard that she and the boys had been saved. He later wrote a letter to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on behalf of his sister, who had received a request from the Board asking her for her impressions of what had happened during the Hindenburg fire. But as she had no knowledge of what might have started the fire, she mainly just told Gustav to write a brief note to the Board and tell them where she had been at the time of the fire, and that she'd dropped her children out of a window and jumped after them.
Kurt Doehner sailed from Germany two days following the disaster on Saturday, May 8th, aboard the steamship Europa. His studies would have to wait while he traveled to the United States to be with his mother and brothers, and it occurred to him that his busy school schedule, which had precluded his ability to join his family on their voyage, may very well have saved his life.
The press, meanwhile, was taking great interest in telling the stories of the Hindenburg’s survivors. Perhaps even more than the others, it was the Doehners with whom they most wanted to speak. Reporters (and at least one photographer, whose hastily-snapped photos of Mrs. Doehner, Walter, Werner and Irene lying in their hospital beds were subsequently – and rather tastelessly – published that weekend in the New York Daily News) located the family at Point Pleasant Hospital within hours of the disaster.
Despite the fact that Matilde and her children were badly injured and in shock, the newspapermen tried to get quotes and photographs, Mrs. Doehner responded with a brief description of their escape, but she had soon had enough. Though reporters would continue to turn up at the hospital for the rest of the family’s stay there, Mrs. Doehner dismissed most of their questions, telling one New York Times writer wearily, “I don’t want to go through that. I have been through too much to go through that.”
Reporters, undaunted by this, began interviewing doctors and nurses at the hospital about the Doehners, and continued to piece together newspaper stories from these second-hand accounts into the summer. To be fair, their admiration of Mrs. Doehner and her role in not only saving her sons from the fire but also in keeping their spirits up as their injuries slowly healed. One New York Times reporter called it “as heroic a story as a mother has ever written.”
Perhaps somewhat less hyperbolically, Mary Shannon, one of the attending nurses throughout the Doehners’ stay at Point Pleasant Hospital, would recall for Joel Siegel on ABC’s “Good Morning America” 50 years later how strong Mrs. Doehner remained for the sake of her two sons. "She was a wonderful woman. And she just kept those two children's morale right up and you would never know from speaking to her during the day that she was mourning the loss of her husband and her only daughter."
Matilde Doehner and her two youngest sons remained at Point Pleasant Hospital for 92 days before leaving on August 7th and returning by train to Mexico City. Kurt Doehner, meanwhile, returned to Germany to finish his studies. However, as Germany moved closer and closer to war over the next couple of years, Kurt became concerned that his German name and ancestry would end up getting him drafted into the German military. He finished his doctorate as quickly as he could, and then left Germany via Switzerland and then made his way to Sweden, later crossing the Atlantic to New York before finally returning to Mexico City.
According to his daughter, Mariana Doehner Pecanins, Walter Doehner died of cancer 20 years after the Hindenburg crash, at the age of 30.
Werner Doehner went on to have a career with the Comision Federal de Electricidad in Mexico. During a skiing trip in Germany in the late 1960s, Werner met his future wife and in 1972 Werner and Elin Doehner’s son Bernd was born. In the early 1980s, Werner left the CFE and moved his family to the United States, where he took a job with General Electric in the Philadelphia area. He continued to work in the energy industry until his retirement in 2000. Until about the age of 80 he continued to travel regularly in pursuit of his avid interest in Native American archaeology as well as to indulge his love of downhill skiing.
As of September, 2014, Werner Doehner is the last living Hindenburg survivor, after the passing in mid-August of the Hindenburg's cabin boy, Werner Franz. However, it was many years before Doehner was finally able to bring himself to talk publicly about the disaster that had claimed the lives of his father and sister. He subsequently paid a visit to Lakehurst and gave interviews for several documentaries on the Hindenburg disaster. For the most part, however, he still prefers to avoid the subject altogether